The Georgia Department of Archives and History is closing in November. This appalling news is a tragedy for researchers and students of history and genealogy.
Georgia, one of the 13 original American colonies, is where many people searching for their Alabama roots will find their ancestors. Our mother’s earliest Alabama ancestor in the Simmons line is a man named William Simmons.
We know little about him other than he was born about 1795 in Georgia, moved to coastal Mississippi by 1820 and brought his large family to Mobile County, Ala. in the mid 1830s. And now a vital resource to research his Georgia roots is being cut off.
Here’s a thorough piece on the closing by our friend Bob Davis of Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Ala. Bob is a distinguished expert and prolific writer on Georgia research.
WHY THE GEORGIA ARCHIVES MATTERS: THE RESEARCHER’S ANSWER
by Robert S. Davis
What Has Happened
In 1979, I wrote Research in Georgia, the first guide to Georgia records, research, and its archives. My work on three more such guides and almost forty other books followed including the recent 2012 edition of Georgia Research: a Handbook for Genealogists, Historians, Archivists, Lawyers, Librarians, and Other Researchers, co-authored with Ted O. Brooke and published by the Georgia Genealogical Society. Had I known what would happen just days later, I would have changed the dedication of this book from remembering great staff members who had helped so many researchers to instead: “In Memory of the Georgia Archives, Georgia Department of Archives and History, and Georgia Surveyor General, institutions that served the world well with aspirations as noble as those of the Trustees who founded Georgia in 1733.”
Unless Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp changes his decision, the Georgia Archives will close on November 1, 2012. Some sort of research by appointment may be allowed with the last two or three fulltime employees. Because of the cost of rent at the 2003 Georgia Archives building, the many tons of records and state property will be placed into storage at great public expense, quite likely in the 1965 Georgia Archives building on Capital Avenue in Atlanta that has remained empty these last nine years. Please see the appendix at the end of this email.
The idea of transferring the state’s records to the adjacent National Archives at Atlanta (formerly the National Archives Southeast Region) will not happen as it faces its own budget cuts. The National Archives and Records Administration overall has had to make controversial and drastic decisions about denying public access to its records to make room, within its declining resources for, at least in part, the modern paperwork of Congress.
Efforts have been made by a number of persons, such as Kaye Lanning Minchew of the Coalition to Preserve the Georgia Archives and many members of the Georgia Genealogical Society, to work with government officials and legislators to end the reduction in days open to the public for both the Georgia Archives and the National Archives at Atlanta.
Currently, the Georgia Archives is open only on Fridays and Saturdays, minus state holidays, the shortest time each week for public access to a state archives in the country.
Arguments have been made that limited access to Georgia’s public records is illegal and even unconstitutional. A court suit may result.
Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee have political climates similar to today’s Georgia but in each of those states, respectively, the archive remains open four to six days per week. Georgia will now become the only state in the country, but maybe not the last, that denies the routine public access to its state records of the past and the present during anything like reasonable hours.
Kemp has issued this order to save some $732,626 from his budget of more than $22,000,000. None of the other divisions of Georgia’s Office of Secretary of State will be making budget cuts.[i]
When I first began doing research at the Georgia Archives in 1974, when the legendary Ben Fortson ran a very tight fiscal ship as Secretary of State, the Georgia Archives had over one hundred employees and special sections for the Georgia Surveyor General, Civil War Research, publications, and Public Education. A specific employee worked as a research adviser to handle difficult records questions. A Records Management Division brought in records, some even two centuries old, from offices, warehouses, and closets of state agencies. (Despite that effort, many such documents remain to be recovered and processed.) Two microfilm crews copied county records and local private historical records from mobile units and the Vanishing Georgia Project copied old photographs in locations across the state.
All of the above took place under difficult budget constrains even in good times. Despite the problems of the Great Depression and World War II, the Georgia Archives remained open to the public. Before a sudden economic downturn in the 1980s, it even had an approved plan to bring in all of the county records offered up by county officials, records too often today kept in terrible conditions, closed to the public, and stolen for sale in flea markets.[ii]
The Georgia Department of Archives and History
Early Georgia officials made efforts to keep public records safe and in the public domain, even as in the case of Revolutionary War Secretary of State John Milton, at the risk of their life. Subsequently, for example, the Union army’s occupation of Milledgeville, then the state capital, in 1864 and the later transfer of most of the state records to Atlanta, when it became the capital, scattered Georgia’s official documents so widely that many have disappeared.
Modern fires in the last two state capitol buildings no doubt destroyed many other papers. Over time many persons, most notably Telamon Smith Cuyler, raided the state records for historical documents. Years ago, janitors in the current capitol building would use the old papers to light the building’s furnaces.[iii]
The Archives began in 1919. Initially, its great advocate Lucian Lamar Knight and two clerks worked in cramped space in the state capitol building. The first archives building, Rhodes Hall in Atlanta, achieved a number of firsts in the then infant archival field.
During the building of the second Georgia Archives building, the director Mary Givens Bryan sought to have all of her department’s records accessioned, as brought in, using one of the first computers for that purpose. That plan died with her before the building opened in 1965.
The current Georgia Archives building, in the City of Morrow, opened in 2003. Moving there created the first complete general listing of the agency’s holdings although many records still lack inventories and descriptions on the Internet or on paper that would facilitate researchers ordering the records for use by appointment. Some of its most popular records and many of the available inventories were placed online. The fulltime staff of less than ten persons placed that material on line with the help of funding from the R. J. Taylor Jr. Foundation but servers at the Georgia Archives recently crashed and many of the digitized images have been lost, likely never to be replaced.
What We Have and Will Lose at the Georgia Archives
Researchers from far and wide come to the Georgia Archives. It developed an international reputation as the state archives of state archives in the United States, as a standard for other state archives that researchers only presumed existed for other states. In years past, some scholars spent entire summers in Atlanta to write important books that today would fill a substantial library. Those works alerted genealogists to little known and seldom-used records of great information value. The Georgia Archives brought millions of dollars to the state from out-of-state researchers, even during these tough economic times.
When one thinks of a visitor to the Georgia Archives, the image is of someone of almost any age seeking to learn family history or a professor doing some historical work. Many people would match those stereotypes but other individuals come with different needs. As one former employee remembers:
We daily dealt with right of way records; tax records for establishing a basis for capital
gains; marsh ownership along the coast; nuanced legal research; boundary disputes;
boundary research; water rights; copies of county records lost, destroyed or altered;
mineral rights; historical land research for practical applications such as chemical imprint
explanation (for example, tanneries leave an imprint); legislatively mandated
archaeological research; and numerous day to day practical applications. As a whole, these
probably matched in number the genealogical inquiries. Add to the practical dimension, the
educational: classes in rhetoric, history, literature, African-American studies, Women’s
Studies, surveying, legal research, and so on. And to all that add the central reason the
archives exists: to guarantee stewardship in government. If the Archives were not useful
for this purpose explain to me why it was full of political campaign representatives doing
research at every election cycle? And always both sides of the campaigns [including for
the upcoming presidential elections].
State agencies use the Georgia Archives to meet a variety of public needs from the past and for the present and future. It manages their records, thus saving the state large sums of money for storage. Movie makers and documentarians use the state archives. Resources of the Georgia Archives are important in historic preservation and archaeology, as well as in documenting antiquities. These same sources have provided critical evidence in private litigation involving millions and millions of dollars. I first visited the Georgia Archives in 1972 when it microfilmed my high school yearbooks for a time capsule project.
The new edition of Georgia Research provides in great detail what taxpayers paid to build and helped to create over generations but will now be denied to them. Loose original records, from the beginning, were filed by individual, county, or subject in what has become File II. [iv] Correspondence, copies of Bible records etc. were filed in family folders. Additional Bible records and many other materials were microfilmed from almost every county in the state.
The General Name File is a card catalog that indexed and cross referenced much of that material, as well as published family histories. This resource and some others could be accessed on the Georgia Archives website before it crashed.
Around this basic resource, the Georgia Archives added much. Willard Wight, a volunteer, organized and indexed the agency’s many Civil War holdings so that even today, these records are more accessible than in almost any other state archives.
Alex M. Hitz did the same for the land grant and land lot lottery records. He also published a number of scholarly articles that still help researchers as valuable background information.[v]
Even Georgia’s first records, from the colonial period, 1733-1782, are remarkably well organized, indexed, and accessible through more than two centuries of effort by a great many people. Unlike some other states, most of the printed copies of legislative minutes, acts, and digests stand on shelves for easy use. Much of this material has been digitized onto the University of Georgia’s Digital Library of Georgia site but scanning problems missed much of the text and do not allow for a page by page random search for a specific act or a vote.
The Georgia Archives also has all but the most recent of the State Supreme Court case files (with an index) and county Superior Court minutes microfilm, as well as some early original court case files that work with state legislation.
Nowhere else can a researcher then use Georgia’s original prison, asylum, pardon, and governor’s proclamation books to write the last page of a family story or of an important moment in history.[vi]
A researcher can also start with the colonial and state land grant records and surviving land court minutes, before easily moving on to the county records microfilm of deeds and tax records, aided by published abstracts, indexes etc. and other materials.
Starting with 1872, the Georgia Archives also has the only set of the state’s county tax digests. Research combined from all of these records can provide clues and circumstantial evidence to family and community relationships.
Georgia’s unique land lot lottery records provide information on many individuals found nowhere else.[vii]
Military records present another particularly good example of the different uses of the holdings of the Georgia Archives. Included in these holdings are documents, microfilm, and books that document service from the American Revolution to Vietnam and beyond. A researcher can, with relative ease, use these records to prove ancestry and service to join a patriotic hereditary organization.
Many of our living heroes or their dependents need the more recent of these records to prove service for veterans’ benefits, especially to replace the records destroyed in the National Personnel Records Center fire in St. Louis in 1974.
The last days of Georgia’s Cherokee Indians as a community, to the level of each Indian family, survive in the land lot lottery records and other resources that have been drawn together in books by Don Shadburn, Mary B. Warren, and Charles O. Walker. Those works have supplements in the Cherokee and Creek Indian documents brought together at the Georgia Archives in indexed typescripts of original state records, across the floor from microfilm of records of mission to administer to and teach the Indians.[viii] Most of this material can also be found scattered among libraries and archives around the country, if one knew where to look and also had the resources for unlimited travel or to hire records searchers.
Nowhere else can the scholar find all of this particular material in one place, literally at finger tip level, with which to make connections, including with the federal records and microfilms across the parking lot in the National Archives at Atlanta and on the public computers with access to the colossal hodge-podge of often incomplete and questionable information on the Internet.
That value has been considerably heightened by the decades during which the Georgia Archives microfilmed or otherwise copied one of a kind private records and other materials that have since proven invaluable to family historians and professional scholars alike. Its vast and varied centralized holdings document enumerable family stories, African American research, Women’s history, political events, biography, economic studies, and so much more.
Many lost answers come to researchers seated at a table in the Archives (including with chance meetings in the break room!) that can be found nowhere else including through the use of private manuscript collections, newspaper indexes, photographs, indexed transcripts of records by Georgia’s Daughters of the American Revolution, genealogical journals, privately published books etc. brought together in this single place.
A Personal Note
Since 1974, I have published more than 1,000 articles, books, reviews, and so much more on Georgia genealogy, history, records, and research. I still have many questions that can only be answered at the Georgia Archives when I have the freedom to explore its resources unhindered, even if we should be allowed to see some records by appointment. My life is invested too much in Georgia, this institution, and its people, in good times and in bad, to say goodbye just yet to the state archives. In my 1979 guide, I wrote that I could not imagine a better way to spend a life than in Georgia research.
Maybe you feel the same way, even if you have not yet made your first visit to the Georgia Archives. In any case, hurry on down, while you still can.
Statement from Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp on Public Closure of the State Archives Effective November 1, 2012
The Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget has instructed the Office of the Secretary of State to further reduce its budget for AFY13 and FY14 by 3% ($732,626). As it has been for the past two years, these cuts do not eliminate excess in the agency, but require the agency to further reduce services to the citizens of Georgia. As an agency that returns over three times what is appropriated back to the general fund, budget cuts present very challenging decisions. We have tried to protect the services that the agency provides in support of putting people to work, starting small businesses, and providing public safety.
To meet the required cuts, it is with great remorse that I have to announce, effective November 1, 2012, the Georgia State Archives located in Morrow, GA will be closed to the public. The decision to reduce public access to the historical records of this state was not arrived at without great consternation. To my knowledge, Georgia will be the only state in the country that will not have a central location in which the public can visit to research and review the historical records of their government and state. The staff that currently works to catalog, restore, and provide reference to the state of Georgia’s permanent historical records will be reduced. The employees that will be let go through this process are assets to the state of Georgia and will be missed. After November 1st, the public will only be allowed to access the building by appointment; however, the number of appointments could be limited based on the schedule of the remaining employees.
Since FY08, the Office of the Secretary of State has been required to absorb many budget reductions, often above the minimum, while being responsible for more work. I believe that transparency and open access to records are necessary for the public to educate themselves on the issues of our government. I will fight during this legislative session to have this cut restored so the people will have a place to meet, research, and review the historical records of Georgia.
Jared S. Thomas
Brian P. Kemp, Secretary of State
214 State Capitol
Atlanta, GA 30330
[i] Kristina Torres, “Supporters Rally against Georgia Archives Closure,” Atlanta Journal Constitution (online), September 16, 2012.
[ii] The archives of North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Missouri have brought in their local government records for preservation and public access.
[iii] See Josephine Hart Brandon, Pages of Glory: Georgia’s Documentary Heritage (Savannah, 1998); Lilla Mills Hawes and Albert S. Britt, Jr., “The Search for Georgia’s Colonial Records,” Georgia Historical Society Collections 18 (1976); Robert S. Davis, “Georgia Ghosts or Where Are They Now? One Researcher’s Catalog of Georgia’s Missing Historical Records,” Provenance: The Journal of the Georgia Association of Archivists 8 (1990): 31-51. Most, but not all, of what Cuyler took is today in the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscripts Library of the University of Georgia Libraries. A rough inventory of the collection can be searched on line and, under the new restrictions at the Hargrett Library, items that can be identified then ordered online for the researcher’s use, see: http://www.libs.uga.edu/hargrett/manuscrip/index.html. Appointments are not required but are now a good idea.
[iv] See Robert S. Davis, Georgians Past: Special Files of Georgia Settlers and Citizens; Subjects and Counties, 1733-1970 (Milledgeville, GA, 1997). These files have been digitized and were available on the Georgia Archives’ website before the servers recently crashed and many of the images were lost.
[v] See Marion R. Hemperley, The Georgia Surveyor General Department: a History and Inventory of Georgia’s Land Office (Atlanta, 1982).
[vi] See Robert S. Davis, comp., The Georgia Black Book II: More Morbid, Macabre, and Sometimes Disgusting Records of Genealogical Value (Easley, SC, 1987), 4-7.
[vii] See Paul K. Graham, Georgia Land Lottery Research (Atlanta, 2010).
[viii] See Robert S. Davis, A Guide to Native American (Indian) Research Sources at the Georgia Department of Archives and History (Jasper, Ga., 1985).